Book Excerpt: The Drama Behind Repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Alexander Nicholson shares the back-and-forth that went on behind the scenes between gay activists, Congress members, the Pentagon, and the president in the months leading up to the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

BY Alexander Nicholson

September 17 2012 5:00 AM ET

Brian Bond soon came out to greet us and ushered us into the Roosevelt Room. Since the room was an enhanced-security area, we had to leave our cell phones outside. We then had a good ten minutes or so to chat awkwardly among ourselves and with the few White House staffers who were minding us. While the others commented on the various paintings that adorned the wall, my eye quickly darted to a glass-encased Medal of Honor that was on display in the southeast corner of the room. Although I could not see the detail of the medal itself from that far away, I recognized the characteristic light blue ribbon from which Medals of Honor always hung.

I have been in the Roosevelt Room several times now, and I have yet to wander over to that display case and see whose medal that is. I am always in awe of the incredible sacrifice and selflessness required to earn that honor, and I even get a little emotional when I hear the Medal of Honor talked about on the news. Some of the people in that room were completely oblivious to being in the presence of the nation’s highest and most sacred military honor, but there they were, and there I was.

We were eventually joined by deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, who apparently was still running the DADT issue for the White House; Tina Tchen, director of the Office of Public Engagement; and a few folks from White House Counsel’s office. Chris Neff, the Palm Center’s “person in DC,” was strangely permitted to join us by phone from Australia, where he was living.

The meeting was rather quick and tense. Tchen first told us that news of the meeting had already leaked, and that the White House press office was getting calls from Politico asking if they could confirm that a meeting with gay activists was taking place. It occurred to me then that putting us all in an enhanced-security conference room and then having someone dial in from Australia seemed like a huge contradiction and a huge confidentiality risk, politically speaking. For all we knew, the caller could easily record the entire meeting on the other end of the line, and on the other side of the globe. That would actually have been useful, given how quickly the participants had started lying after the previous White House meeting.

After the customary confidentiality admonishments, Messina rather coldly informed us that the White House would be issuing a statement later that day regarding the new repeal amendment that had been proposed. The statement was clearly an attempt to reluctantly jump on board a fast-departing train. But it would not even come from the president in the end. It would come from Peter Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Having an administration official not involved in the DADT issue send the White House’s position out in the form of a letter was obviously meant to downplay the significance of the tepid and reluctant endorsement.

Tags: Military

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